You Never Go Full Fairness Doctrine
There's a lot of dumb things on the internet. Government regulation won't fix that. Plus: Is Gavin McInnes in jail? And: George Soros
Ten days before Christmas, 1938, thousands of people jammed onto the sidewalk around the recently-christened Federal Communications Commission’s Manhattan offices. They were there to protest Father Charles Coughlin’s firing.
A self-styled patriot who carried a sign in defense of the Catholic broadcaster told the Associated Press: “This is an American protest against the curtailment of free speech." They wanted the station that had booted Coughlin, WMCA, taken off the air.
Indeed, Coughlin had been booted from the airwaves just a few weeks prior by the station. Given his audience was counted in the tens of millions — a voice so powerful that sports matches were, according to lore, paused so that spectators could race home to listen to his screeds — that was no minor deplatforming.
Once a fierce voice for social justice and a prominent booster of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Coughlin had turned on FDR and became obsessed with the supposed threat of communism. He certainly wasn’t the only one. A former Socialist Party organizer had made a similar turn, warning at the time that communists, much more than fascists, “constitute in reality the greatest organized force for war and dictatorship in our country.”
Coughlin may have been fighting for free speech for himself, but not for the communists he despised. "Tolerance becomes an heinous voice when it tolerates communism,” he told his listeners.
Those particularly responsible for the spread of communism, he railed, was the Jewish people. “I distinguish between good Jews and bad Jews. Communistic Jews have been responsible in great part for the persecutions visited upon Jews everywhere.”
Those opinions, unsurprisingly, drew accusations that Coughlin was carrying water for Adolf Hitler as he geared up his war machine in Europe — the Sudentenland had been annexed to Germany just months prior.
"If Hitler wanted a propagandist in America, he couldn't ask for anything better," one Pittsburg rabbi said of Coughlin at the time.
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WMCA hadn’t fired him, exactly. They had demanded copies of Coughlin’s radio addresses ahead of time, which he refused. It wasn’t the first broadcaster he had clashed with. Either way, Coughlin’s time on the radio was numbered: His clamoring for neutrality, coupled with his conspiratorial rantings that a fifth column of Jews had infiltrated America’s systems of finance and politics, meant he was forced off the air by the time the war had begun.
But Coughlin had wielded the power of radio in a way that nobody else had before. His fiery sermons and personable lilt listeners feel like he was addressing them from across the kitchen. Radio made his grandiose conspiracies feel intimate.
Martin Dies Jr, a Texas congressman, was incredibly attuned to that power. He shared many, if not most, of Coughlin’s views, but was careful about how he presented them on the air. His seat in Congress, meanwhile, meant the big broadcast networks were certain to take his calls: He was given more speaking slots on NBC than any other member of the House.
Dies had set up a House committee, with support of the White House, designed to investigate foreign threats to the United States: Specifically, fascist activists who might be sympathetic to Hitler or who could be violently anti-semitic.
But Dies didn’t wait long to pull a bait-and-switch. On the radio, Dies raised the specter of communism haunting the White House, suggesting that would be the new focus of his committee. “No longer do the communists and sympathizers sneer. We have probed too deeply to evoke smiles,” he told his listeners.
The Dies Committee, or the House Un-American Activities Committee, would investigate both suspected fascists and communists through the war, but not all of their investigations were created equal: They interrogated Oscar Pfaus, an actual German Nazi who would return to the fatherland to produce propaganda until he was captured by the allies; but they also suggested that child star Shirley Temple was a vehicle for Red propaganda. So.
It wasn’t hard to figure out Dies’ motives. He said in 1938 that it was liberals in favor of FDR’s New Deal that gave quarter to “many alien groups and foreign blocs intent upon the destruction of the Republic.” He viewed FDR’s social programs as a trojan horse for communism — so he would invent a world where commies lurked behind every corner, so you could only trust the commie-hunters.
It was America’s first real introduction to mass media. Control of the radio waves fell to just a few large broadcast networks — companies that, according to Coughlin, were controlled by the Jews. The newly-created FCC was not in the business of policing speech on the radio.
It was wartime regulations really did put a lid on radio, with a ban on editorializing. Dies would fade into obscurity when war broke out, and would only go further to the right amid the civil rights struggle.
“Dies used his radio speeches — and broader media access as Chair of the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities — to construct a unique recipe for populist conservatism,” writes Joy Hayes in a new paper in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media.
More than that, though, Dies and Coughlin would set the roadmap for how this new brand of populist conservatism would position itself as a victim in these culture wars: A victim of censorship.
Some of this will be familiar if you’ve listened to The Flamethrowers, my podcast about the history of right-wing radio. In it, we break down how Coughlin paved the way for the likes of Carl McIntire, who adapted the red scare for a new generation.
McIntire and his fellow broadcasters flooded back to the airwaves after the war, as the propaganda and censorship gave way to a more permissive liberalism. New FCC regulations encouraging discourse and debate, on paper, required equal weight for both sides of any given issue, and gave citizens enormous power to rebut and complain about views heard on the radio: The so-called Fairness Doctrine. In practise, however, few of those onerous regulations were enforced.
So these new conservative and religious broadcasters, backed up by the nascent John Birch Society, insisted the threat of Communism had only mounted: And that global Marxism was closing in. And they were pretty free to do so.
McIntire told his millions of listeners that President John F Kennedy Jr and the National Council of Churches — an ecumenist body that was, according to the broadcaster, “the strongest ally of Russia” — were weakening America, serving it up to the USSR. Only setting up a Christian quasi-theocracy would stave off the Marxist terror, he said.
He made a pile of money doing it. As he plotted a 1963 rally opposite Kennedy, he sent out a desperate plea for money: “Unless I have some real response to this letter, stations are going to stop carrying the program,” he wrote to supporters, soliciting funds. He would pull that shtick for the next decade: In 1974, he raised $500,000 in just six days (about $3 million in today’s dollars) to help him save a huge property he had bought in Florida.
All-in, McIntire — like Coughlin and Dies before him — was only moderately successful. He raised huge sums of money, attracted millions of listeners, but his viewpoint remained in the minority. In 1938, even though three-quarters of America supported the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee, just a quarter named Communist activities as their biggest concern. In 1964, the Republicans ran Barry Goldwater, McIntire’s preferred candidate, and suffered an absolute thrashing. The proportion of the country inclined to believe that the USSR was not just an external threat, but an internal one, never fully took hold.
Years earlier, that clamouring was put to bed due to wartime censorship — which went into overdrive when Joseph Stalin joined the allied war effort.
Kennedy tried to replicate that success. Before his untimely death, the president unleashed a campaign to take out McIntire: The Reuther Memorandum. He tasked his brother, the Attorney General, to put the Fairness Doctrine into effect and to weaponize the Internal Revenue Service to take out McIntire and the others.
The regulatory apparatus was a mess: When conservative stations went hard against Kennedy’s Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Kennedys set up a front group to demand the right to respond — stations were required to give a sockpuppet group airtime, for free.
Citizens could demand transcripts of shows, too, racking up massive printing costs. Complaints would flood into the FCC about stations that had offended the masses. Even if outlets could comply with the mountain of rules, the administrative and legal fees threatened to put them underwater.
It wasn’t as though a culture of thoughtful debate and civility sprung up in this new soil. As conservative shows off the air, they were frequently replaced with generic news broadcasts or uncontroversial entertainment. Listeners were either getting a milquetoast reading of the state of affairs, or entertainment in its stead. In other words: Listeners were exposed to more homogeneous news and analysis, and less of it.
The new normal for the airwaves was great news for the Democrats, who had been getting clobbered on the radio, but retained support from the printed press. But for a right-wing movement already primed for paranoia, it made those broadcasters martyrs.
McIntire, forced off the air, set up pirate radio: Literally. He leased a World War II-era minesweeper, christened it SS Radio Free America, and continued broadcast from international waters.
The tight-gripped censorship of the Fairness Doctrine was never going to last and, fittingly, it was actor-turned-radio broadcaster Ronald Reagan who killed it. By Reagan’s second term, the Fairness Doctrine was dead. Radio was free once more.
The rest is history. A rock DJ named Rusty Sharp, a.k.a Rush Limbaugh, would get his big break just a few years later. Alex Jones would rise to prominence, then infamy, on the airwaves in Austin a few years after that: The station would fire him for making common cause with antisemites to rebuild the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. G. Gordon Liddy, one of the Watergate burglars, would rehabilitate his image on the airwaves. Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, Laura Ingraham: Right-wing talk radio made all of them.
By the late 1990s, Limbaugh sat on top of the talk radio charts — beneath him were a motley crew of other right-wing broadcasters, many signing from Coughlin and McIntires’ hymn books.
The history of the Fairness Doctrine has been on my mind this week, after speaking to Rachel Gimore of Global News about the corrupting influence of misinformation-laden podcasts on our discourse.
I won’t quibble with the article, like some have.
Global National @GlobalNationalHow podcasts have become misinformation machines — and what can be done about it https://t.co/aPW2ntVuvk https://t.co/1SuGK4v6Bd
Except to say that I think it makes the same mistake that most of us in the media have been making for quite some time: Looking at the errant sources of this misinformation as a individual problems to be fixed.
Gilmore, quoting Ahmed Al-Rawi of Simon Fraser University’s Disinformation Project, points to a lack of moderation in the podcast space as part of the reason for this explosion of misinformation. Because of that lack of oversight, “they feel more empowered, more liberated to say whatever they want,” Al-Rawi says.
Carmen Celestini, one of Al-Rawi’s colleagues, points to the litany of “loopholes” that allow these troublesome podcasts to avert social media bans.
I always arch my eyebrows at comments like these. They talk about the scourge of unsavoury, outright wrong, or even lunatic opinions as novel: They’re not! Bob Grant became the original New York City shock jock by getting into profanity-laden swearing matches with his guests. One of his frequent callers, Hal from North Bergen, would go on to have his own upstart white supremacist radio radio show, using his real name: Hal Turner. Stormfront, the notorious neo-Nazi webforum, has been running a radio show for decades.
While we’re obviously right to focus on the rise of misinformation in all its forums, sometimes the medium is not the message.
Which brings me to the point [chorus: about time!]: We need to stop talking about how governments can solve the misinformation epidemic that plagues us. Regulators and regulations cannot, and should not, set the parameters of what’s being said on the airwaves, anymore than they should be dictating what’s being muttered in hour eight of a streamer’s early-morning Twitch happening. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can start confronting the real problems we’re facing.
From musings around the revival of the Fairness Doctrine to the Department of Homeland Security’s planned disinformation snooper squad, we’ve seen governments contemplate how to insert themselves smack dab in the middle of this problem. In Canada, a plan to beef up regulator oversight of social media content, coupled with a bill aiming to forbid new classes of hate speech, have raised concerns that Ottawa is looking to be a leader on this front.
There’s plenty of good public policy goals in applying antitrust principles to the internet, and ensuring that big tech companies do not amass too much power. There might be some utility in figuring out how to force them to finance that level playing field by paying reparations to the industries they’ve disrupted — the jury’s still out on that one.
But the government, hardly a neutral arbiter on this front, working with these companies, which have showed a tremendous lack of judgment in what should and should-not be on their platforms, to fight this problem is a recipe for disaster.
Even as it professed to be fighting hate speech and disinformation in the wake of the 2016 U.S. meddling operation, Facebook enabled years of furious demonization of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. Its role in enabling the ethnic cleansing of that vulnerable population can be likened to the job the radio played in encouraging the genocide of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda.
But Facebook doesn’t claim to be a neutral platform, either. As Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained on the Joe Rogan podcast this week, they have heeded the U.S. government’s warnings about possible disinformation in making decisions to limit the reach of some stories — like the leak of Hunter Biden’s laptop.
While it is overwrought to say that Facebook “censored” the story (is it censorship to bury a shaky story on A10 of the newspaper, when others think it should be front-page news?) the emerging right-wing freak-out over Zuckerberg’s statements are not entirely without merit.
News outlets, of course, can decide when and how to run a story about something like the junior Biden’s pilfered laptop — they have internal ethics guides, editorial processes, and institutional knowledge that will inform how they approach such a story. Many outlets decided not to run a story on the laptop, or to warn about other reporting on it, until the contents of the laptop could be properly verified and its chain of custody could be established. That, I think, was the right call.
But Facebook and Twitter’s procedure for limiting the reach of such a story is far murkier. They were given intelligence likely not afforded to news outlets, and used that information to — in an opaque way — stunt how far the story could go.
Specifically because they have used such powers, with little consistency, in recent years, their power to moderate the global conversation has declined precipitously. Alternative social media platforms — Minds, Gab, Odyssey, Rumble, Bitchute, Telegram, Parler, Truth Social — have racked up millions of subscribers with a promise to do no such content moderation. They are like Carl McIntire, sitting off the coast of Florida in his decommissioned minesweeper, broadcasting on whatever frequency they can find.
Now, the Hunter Biden laptop — which, in the end, was verified as mostly authentic but contained little information actually in the public interest and whose origins remain somewhat murky — lives in infamy as the story that the FBI, Facebook, and the establishment press conspired to suppress.
In the past, I’ve been receptive to the idea that maybe some carefully-tailored government regulation, coupled with internet giants swerving towards something approaching altruism, could be effective in the fight against misinformation and disinformation. I’ve been disabused of that notion.
We should demand that governments play a proactive role in handling clear cases of violent hate speech — clear instances where online language could lead to real-world harm against marginalized groups — and do it well.
But we should not ask governments and these bad corporate actors to fight misinformation for us. They will fail, and they will make things worse. Governments will be unable to resist the urge to limit misinformation for their own strategic ends, like Kennedy did; and companies will act on matters that improve shareholder contentedness, not public good.
So what do we do?
Taking some lessons from our past is a good place to start.
Despite Coughlin and Dies’ crusade to unravel his remaking of the American economy, FDR prevailed. He did so not by pretending like he was above responding to those invectives; not by knocking his critics off the air; but by responding to them. The president’s now-famous ‘fireside chats’ met Coughlin’s fans where they were at: On the radio. (FDR’s wartime censorship was pretty much standard, and probably shouldn’t be read as an attack on Coughlin et al.)
The Kennedys’ attack on McIntire engendered a pervasive feeling like the right was being silence in liberal America: And they weren’t entirely wrong. It’s hard to decouple that from the rise of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan’s later success, and the intense toxicification of the partisan press.
It is possible to address the grievances that drive right-wing media’s ragemachine without actively feeding it, in other words.
The journalism industry, for all its faults, is normally good at identifying segments of the population who feel under-represented, and addressing them.
CNN thrashed the gatekeeper mindset of the evening news. VICE’s direct-to-camera realism was a tonic for the stuffed suit anchors who led us to war in Iraq. Substack is breaking iconoclastic authors out of their under-financed and oft-reinventing newsrooms. (Hi!) The industry reinvents itself as needed.
Trashbin media rarely shows the same knack for reinvention.
The so-called ‘yellow press’ of the late 19th century helped make the case for a quixotic imperial war with Spain, and had alienated their readers in the process. “The public is becoming heartily sick of fake news and fake extras. Some of the newspapers in this town have printed so many lying dispatches that people are beginning to mistrust any statement they make,” an industry paper noted at the time. Yellow journalism was essentially dead by the 20th century.
In short: We need to do a better job of listening to the grievances being voiced in these right-wing echochambers and understand why they’re so effective. People fall into disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy theories because they feel — rightly or wrongly — like the system is rigged. They think that because shameless charlatans tell them so.
Max Lerner, a humanist and liberal, wrote in the late 1930s that: "No matter how many Coughlins talk, they can't produce anti-Semitism in America if the people are economically secure. Put people back to work and they won’t listen to lies, they won’t swallow poison.”
We need to keep calling out those charlatans. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that the system is rigged. Or, at least, broken. But not in the way that Alex Jones, or Carl McIntire, or Charles Coughlin have spent a century insisting. Figuring out that disconnect is crucial. That breaking down the ludicrious claims being made about adverse reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine, or exposing the multi-million dollar junk supplement business underwriting this nonsense. It means explaining why we won’t run stories like the tale of Hunter’s laptop. It means trying to show people how, and why, the rich get richer during a pandemic — without the answer being “Jews.”
The answer certainly isn’t the Fairness Doctrine 2.0.
Below the paywall: The original Proud Boy goes to jail? And what is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee doing in trading in antisemitic conspiracy theories?
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